It started simply enough. After two days of sunrise-to-sunset trout fishing and bare-bones camping food, we were ready for a real meal and the luxury of a pitcher of beer and some college football on TV. In small town Arkansas, almost all of the internet reviews of restaurants come from out-of-towners who are visiting for some combination of tourism or visiting provincial relatives, which is why most of the reviews are filled with holier-than-thou qualifiers like “Finally found a place I could actually eat,” and “The one reminder of what it’s like in the outside world.” Of course, these are the exact types of people who are power users on Yelp and Google Reviews.
Still, when wandering blindly around unfamiliar territory in search of a TV and dinner, you have to start somewhere. So we did. At Lake Town Pizza, which seemed promising based on all five reviews we found online. When we pulled up, though, we were vaguely unsettled by the restaurant’s layout and kitschy decor and the fact that the television was not playing football, but rather Finding Nemo. When someone noticed us and asked if we’d be dining in, I replied, “Not sure yet,” before looking at Ben and walking out the door.
“I think we should try somewhere else. Plus it doesn’t even look like they have beer.”
We hopped into the car and drove down Main Street. I’d noticed a different pizza place that morning when we were headed to the river, and I had a much better feeling about it from a passing glance at its façade in Heber Springs’ only strip center.
We walked in and were greeted with a familiar small town scene. Someone spread out at a back table doing paperwork and counting money. A few families eating. The Arkansas Razorbacks game blaring on both TVs. My fishing buddy asked someone who appeared to work there a truly heretical question.
“Can we get the A&M game on one of the TVs?”
“Man, I ought to just ask you to leave right now.”
So it began.
Soon, the A&M game was on one TV, albeit at a slightly cropped ratio that the man swore was not just because it was the A&M game. Soon after, we had toasted ravioli and a dozen wings on our table, people heckling us from all directions, and the type of immediate familiarity and banter that people make dozen-season sitcoms about.
A drunk man from Memphis came in and discussed beard length with me. He said his 59th birthday was on October 1 and that he and his sons were all growing a beard for a full year until his 60th birthday and asked if I’d be at Pizza Pie-Zazz this time next year to inspect his progress. I have tentatively marked my calendar.
As patrons filed in and out, our banter intensified with Todd, our server and the owner/proprietor of the restaurant. He appreciated our candor and gregariousness and the strange gift that is having some rival fans nearby (not that I’m an A&M fan nor will I ever be) because it creates some sort of dramatic foil to the packed house of people rooting on the pigs as they massacred some third-tier early season opponent. His smack talking was only matched by the size and quantity of our food, and the moments between were illusory.
It quickly became clear that this was a dry county, that this restaurant was a family affair, and that these were the kind of people that I have much in common with. Our dinner conversation involved the entire restaurant staff. Steve, who served me my calzone, is not even on the payroll. He works sixty hours a week at the local auto shop, then comes by Pizza Pie-Zazz when he gets off to spend the remainder of his day interacting with customers and helping out however he can. He won’t accept a dime and often sneaks payment into the register for the food they give him. He also provides what he calls the “Steve Jones Scholarship” to Beverley, an employee there who is a single mother of two paying her way through life and nursing school while working tirelessly and joyfully. He provides a few hundred dollars a month to her, for no reason other than Steve is divorced, his children are grown, and he has a lot more love and money than he has outlets for.
Beverley and Todd call each other the most horrible of names and love each other unconditionally, as do Meghan and Rita and all the other employees and loosely associated members of the Pizza Pie-Zazz community. I had a very difficult time discerning what all seven(!) people working that night were doing, but Todd pays each and every one of them well and cares for them as fiercely as a father (in many cases, better than their own fathers do). And at least one of the people working that night was his actual daughter.
It was closing time, but we still had food in front of us and the game was still going. UT didn’t even kick off until nearly 10 PM, so the coverage started after the A&M game ended. It should be noted that A&M and Arkansas face each other next week. We sat and sank deeper in conversation with Todd and Angie. Soon, we were opening Budweisers and hearing tales of local politics and pizza franchises. Todd is the mayor of neighboring Pangburn, Arkansas, and a part-time police officer (please read this profile on Todd’s many hats) because he believes that anyone with political policing power should understand exactly what his men are up against and what it’s like to do their jobs.
He and Angie bought the Pie-Zazz business from a local woman who won the business in a nasty divorce case. She then let one of her employees steal the lease from the landlord, which meant that the equipment, phones, and signage were all locked into the old building when the locks were replaced. Todd and his friends organized a way to remove what was legally theirs, got kicked off the property before they could repair the gaping hole that the walk-in fridge left in the exterior wall, found a new space to operate the restaurant, and worked tirelessly to ready it for business, where it’s quickly become a Heber Springs institution.
Meanwhile, the kid who scored the lease to the old space (which is now the aforementioned Lake Town Pizza) continues to compete with his cross-town rivals through cost-cutting and classic cutthroat tactics like red herring internet reviews and even sending family members to accuse Todd of doing things like throwing away Lake Town menus at local resorts. It is a better story than the Hatfields and the McCoys, and truer, too. And it exemplifies the way the oft-forgotten principals of hard work and genuine involvement always win out over low cost and aggressive advertising. This is a town that the internet has largely forgotten, with the exception of the way businesses live and die by Trip Advisor.
“How did ya’ll find us?” Todd and Angie seemed to ask simultaneously. Our story made them smile and they brought everyone out from the kitchen to re-tell it. Beverley looked shocked that we were allowed to even say the words “Lake Town” more than once in the restaurant.
This is a place where everyone has an anecdotal story about Bill Clinton’s shenanigans at the swankiest hotel in the area from his days as governor of Arkansas, where people deliver pizzas for free to members of the community who are down on their luck, where men work one hundred hours a week at three jobs, not because they have a passion for pizza or politics or policing, but because their hearts overflow with a work ethic and love for their neighbors that outnumbers that of ten normal men.
And Todd is still very much a normal man. He shared stories of hilarious drunken camping escapades and his love for fishing—which he doesn’t get to do as much as he used to—and his passion for Arkansas (and Dallas Cowboys) football. These are the simple, immutable joys that we all share, a common language that earns immediate trust and after-hours brews in a dry county and enough food to feed four people for twenty five dollars (his math was intentionally just a little bit off). His Methodist cross necklace swings in and out of his shirt as he plays with it. “I’m a little bit religious but I should be a lot more.”
Ben gets out his can of Skoal and Todd asks if he has a spitter. For a millisecond, I thought this was a passive-aggressive question, before he produced his own can of Grizzly. Angie sat a booth away overseeing managerial tasks and interjecting with the quick one-liners that characterize small town banter. Perhaps that slightly slower cadence buys people an extra nanosecond to be as quick-witted as they are. Or maybe, in rural areas, closeness and conversation are desired antidotes to thick woods and wide open prairies, and people simply gain experience from a young age at the art of fluid conversation. I hope someday to speak half as well as everyone in Pizza Pie-Zazz did that night.
We sat in the building after hours, sipping Americas (as Budweiser is currently branded) and discussing America, swapping stories of debauchery and hard work, and getting a clearer picture of the inner workings of one of America’s countless small towns. He spoke of antique collections that’d fetch dozens of thousands of dollars, of the relatively different value of a dollar in a town where wages are low and costs are, too. We heard true-life parables of keeping up with the Joneses, of the very real ways that one can “get stuck” or reach a dead-end in a way that many of us on the outside don’t understand and thus hastily pass judgement. Of his mother, Todd said, “She’s a true country woman. If a tornado happens anywhere in Arkansas, the news crews want to interview her.”
That line is more telling than Todd knows. Those of us who are insulated in big cities are unduly fascinated with the seemingly larger-than-life characters who inhabit the spaces between, who spend more time focusing on themselves than distracting themselves by focusing on others. Outsized personalities are found everywhere, but they seem to be more common in downsized places, where circumstance and happenstance conspire to create communities instead of divisions and subdivisions. Todd wants his parents to buy a house down the street from his, but they still live in the same house Todd grew up in because his mom’s parents live next door.
When we finally walked out of Pizza Pie-Zazz, it was the fourth quarter of the UT game and the clock was soon to strike 1 AM. Todd would be back around eleven the following morning, but first he would pick up his son from his parents’ house where they’d been baking cupcakes and watching football. He offered us the keys to the place if we wanted to hang out and watch the end of the game, though Ben was eager to return to camp to let Scout out for an evening walk. Somewhere in the night, just beyond the strip center, the Little Red River flows through this little mountain town and thousands of trout swim beneath the surface, drawing people like Ben and myself into other people’s lives in pursuit of scaleless fish in famous tailwater fisheries. The fishing was good enough to revisit, but I’m really scheming my next trip back so I can drink another beer with Mayor Todd.